Illustration: Serge Bloch
The glories of Thai food are based on the attraction of opposites: fiery curry paste and cooling coconut milk; sweet noodles with the shock of salty crunch; or bright, sharp lime paired with deep, musky fish sauce. But those big, bold flavors often come from copious amounts of saturated fat and sodium.
Rich and creamy coconut milk is a key ingredient in many Thai soups, curries, and desserts. But since a mere half cup contains over 200 calories and more than a day's worth of saturated fat, it's easy to see why a coconut-based soup deserves a red-light designation.
Fish sauce, shrimp paste, and curry paste also figure prominently in Thai cuisine—and all are high in sodium, making it nearly impossible to keep your sodium consumption moderate. If Thai food is in your plans, watch your sodium intake for the rest of the day.
In order to help you navigate your way to a healthy Thai meal, we analyzed the nutrition of commonly ordered dishes. Those labeled "Splurge Only" aren't untouchable (no food is) but can be a really big splurge. Nutrition numbers are estimates: Results vary widely among restaurants.
- Musamun Curry
This is the richest of the Thai curries because it's made with more coconut milk and cream than others and typically features rich duck, fatty beef, or dark-meat chicken pieces.
- Coconut Shrimp Soup (Tom Kha Goong)
You are consuming nearly two days' worth of saturated fat. Unless you're splurging, get your coconut fix somewhere else and stick with Hot and Sour soup.
Ask Your Server:
- Pad Thai
Although it's an appealing mix of sweet, sour, and spicy flavors, you get mostly refined carbs and sodium. Fortunately, it isn't as outrageously high in saturated fat as some of its menu mates.
- Pork Panang
In the context of Thai curries, this is a slightly better choice than the others. Choose shrimp instead of pork and you'll save about 120 calories, 15 grams of fat, and 5 grams of saturated fat.
- Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup (Tom Yum Goong)
This is a calorie and fat bargain with an appealingly robust balance of flavors. Just be aware that like all Thai soups, it's high in sodium.
- Cashew Chicken (Gai Pad Mamuang Him Ma Pahn)
Thanks to cashews, this dish is chock-full of healthy fats and is generally a sound choice, but watch your portions because those calories add up fast.
Smart (and Not-So-Smart) Starters:
- Summer Rolls: Soft rice paper wrapped around steamed filling.
- Satay: Grilled meat skewers (go easy on the dipping sauce).
- Papaya Salad: Crisp, refreshing grated fruit in a chile-lime dressing.
Adjust Your Order
- Larb: The meat can be high in saturated fat. Opt for tofu.
- Shrimp or Fish Cakes: All are deep fried, so you can't be sure how much oil they soak up.
The Colors of Curry:
- Green: The hottest; made from fresh green chiles.
- Red: The original curry; usually made with dried red chiles.
- Yellow: The mildest; made from red or yellow chiles mixed with turmeric.